Networking faces a staff skills gap. This is nothing new -- news about the network skills gap has been around since at least 2000. The rare times without such stories in the news cycle are during recessions or events like the bursting of the tech bubble, when many skilled professionals were out of work.
Why is there a skills gap in networking?
Skills gaps, in general, are typically the result of rapidly shifting technology. IT professionals can only absorb so much new information in a given period, and that capacity decreases over the years for most people. Knowledge turns into skills with repetitive execution of new actions. When the pace of change happens rapidly, new skill sets often become obsolete before they're fully mastered.
Network professionals understand the legacy technology when they join the field, as well as the technology they bring into an environment early in their tenures. Network pros often continue to keep pace with the wave of new tech following that, but most begin to lose ground in the continuous emergence of new generations of technology.
Even when network professionals learn about new technologies and strategies, they might not become as comfortable with them as they are with previous methodologies. They tend to manage and use new technologies in ways similar to how they used the old strategies. This helps explain why network management is still primarily a manual process performed via command line interfaces.
Demographics and trends can also provide an explanation for the gap. IT teams, in general, have experienced significant generational turnover as late-period baby boomers and Generation X staff cycle out of the workforce or into hands-off management positions. And, for a variety of reasons, not as many young technology professionals pursue networking anymore.
The networking skills gap seems worse than it is
One component of the perceived networking skills gap is the distance between what employers seek in new hires and what is available in the labor market. When employers seek to replace a staff member who is retiring or leaving, they often advertise for the skills the staff member has, as well as any new relevant skills.
Applicants with those exact skills are not as numerous, and ones with those skills ask for more compensation than the departing staff member, which means they might be too expensive to hire. This helps explain the skills gap -- it's not because organizations can't find people with relevant skills, but because hiring managers might think skilled candidates are expensive to onboard.
Another issue of increasing importance is the initial reviews of applicants, resumes and cover letters have become more automated and third-party mediated. The smaller the set of applicants that tick off specific qualification criteria or use specific keywords, the more often a search comes up empty, even if the applicant pool includes professionals capable of the tasks required of the position.
If managers did more of the initial review, more individuals with sufficient skills would get through to the later stages of the hiring process. Likewise, if more people with IT backgrounds screened resumes in third-party hiring companies, they would be able to see when applicants have relevant and transferrable skills even if they don't have specific terms on their resumes.
What enterprises want in networking professionals
Enterprises want and need every kind of networking skill, from cabling to cloud network architecture management.
Important networking skills employers look for include the following.
Centralized network management
Enterprises want network professionals who can use centralized management tools, whether on-premises or cloud-based ones, to manage enterprise WANs, LANs and wireless LANs. Centralized network management activities include the following:
- Maintain golden configurations to push out to devices.
- Centrally manage exceptions to standard configurations.
- Use central management consoles to push out updates and patches, as well as manage devices for which initial pushes fail.
Network professionals should know how to write and maintain automation scripts for network management using standard tools like PowerShell and Python, as well as DevOps-style IaaS tools like Ansible or Terraform.
Cloud network architecture
Network professionals should know how to design, deploy and maintain public, private and hybrid cloud networks and their connections to on-premises networks.
Regardless of their specializations, network professionals should have a solid foundation of knowledge about other aspects of networking. Individuals who work with cables, patch panels and wall plates most of the time should still understand Ethernet and IP addressing, switching and routing.
Network managers, and even network architects, should have some experience with data center networking and know how to build level cabling and switching. Cloud network architects should also understand how traditional, noncloud networks work.
Gain skills to decrease the gap
Network professionals can gain skills in the following ways:
- Independent study. Complete free or paid online courses.
- Formal training. Use study materials and self-tests or engage in vendor certification programs.
- Practical experience. Experiment in virtual practice labs, or experiment in company network sandboxes or testing labs when it can be justified by actual organizational needs.
It's possible for network professionals to take this development on at a personal level in their own time. If network professionals aspire to develop greater professional flexibility as a way to open more options when they seek their next job, and what they want to learn has little relevance to their current employer, they should embrace a DIY approach.
However, given how difficult many IT departments find it to hire staff with the right skills, organizations should give network professionals support. Their current employer might pay for training, sometimes in return for a commitment to stay on for a period of time once they gain new skills.
Although some employers are reluctant to make this kind of deal, many recognize the benefits of advancement from within. An added benefit is that even after companies pay for training and potentially give raises to advanced employees, most companies will have spent less than they would have if they brought in a new hire instead.
John Burke is CTO and principal research analyst with Nemertes Research. With nearly two decades of technology experience, he has worked at all levels of IT, including end-user support specialist, programmer, system administrator, database specialist, network administrator, network architect and systems architect. His focus areas include AI, cloud, networking, infrastructure, automation and cybersecurity.